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Preparing Trees & Plants for Winter

by Elmer on 11/16/2010
Peach Tree with Tree Guard

Each year is divided into four seasons: winter, spring, summer, and fall. Plants and trees experience life cycles through these seasons. For human beings, life cycles occur every day. We require a certain amount of rest each day (we call it sleep) to function the following day. The amount and quality of our rest helps to determine how healthy and productive we are. Most trees “sleep” each winter (we call it their dormancy period). The amount and quality of their rest also determines how healthy and productive they are! Let’s take a few minutes to talk about preparing for winter and making this dormancy period the best it can be for your plants and trees.

Outdoor Plants and Trees

Insulation

Tree Circles help insulate roots

It is important to protect the root systems of young plants and trees. This can easily be achieved by applying a layer of mulch on top of the soil around the root system*. Mulch, which can be comprised of natural things like wood chips, leaf/yard compost, sawdust, or straw, acts as an insulator that protects the roots when the temperature drops in late fall/winter/early spring. Mulch also acts as a weed deterrent and helps retain moisture during the growing season. Laying down a barrier, like Tree Circles, and covering the barrier with mulch is a simple means to avoid a number of problems at the root level all year long.

*Be sure not to pile mulch around the trunk, to avoid potentially harmful issues like creating an environment for rot or nibbling-critter damage.

Depredation

Tree Guards protect tree trunks

As summer comes to a close, the grass and ground-covers toughen, moving rabbits to chew on tree bark. This destructive threat increases with cold weather and snow cover. On the farm, outbuildings, clutter and ground-cover provide adequate cover to house this animal. In urban settings, landscaping, hedges, and ground-cover provide the same housing and can be even worse than the rural setting. It’s heartbreaking to grow and nurture plants and trees along, only to wake one morning to find them girdled to death or impaired for life by hungry critters.

Rabbits can chew trees way up into their fifth and sixth season. Simple and inexpensive solutions that can be applied in mere seconds are Tree Guards. These wraps also afford protection to the trunk by reflecting the winter sun’s rays. Most winter damage to the tree’s trunk is from getting warmed up on bright, sunny winter days. At nightfall, the trunk often doesn’t adjust to the sudden temperature drop. Tree Guards are a must!

Container Plants and Trees

Folks who live in small quarters (or just choose to grow plants and trees in containers) come to a crossroad when the nighttime temperatures fall below 15ºF. The problem is this: when the temperature dips to 20ºF and stays there for a while, it’s possible to freeze the core roots of the plants. Until you decide to bring the plants inside, you should thoroughly water the pots prior to cold snaps. This will help protect the roots. It’s easier for freeze damage to occur in a dry container than in a wet container!

When the weather gets cold, and you are working toward winterizing, you can move your container plants into an unheated garage or shed. Prior to moving, thoroughly water the pots. If a plant is cold-hardy, you can leave it outside by mounding 4-6 inches of mulch around and over the top of the pot — heavy enough to provide a protective barrier around the pot. Prior to mounding, you should adequately water the pot. For added protection, consider using some type of rodent bait in the sawdust or mulch to avoid mice depredation.

Keep in mind, some container plants need to be transferred inside because they may not be cold hardy for the zones in which they are planted. Such is the case with Asian Persimmon trees for folks in zones 4-5. Here at Stark Bro’s, we’ve been winterizing our our persimmons by transferring 100 10-gallon pots inside for over 10 years. If you love this fruit but live in a zone-challenged area, know that these plants adapt and fruit well in a containerized situation — as long as they are moved inside for the winter months.

How well we balance our sleep life with our work life can help determine the quality of our senior years. Since a plant endures four seasons each year, its rest period and our care can determine both its performance and longevity.

– Elmer

Read more about winter protection for plants and trees »

Topics → Planting & Growing, Tips

48 Comments

  1. John S.Henchey permalink

    Is it too late for ordering and planting Hydrangeas (100129) in Oklahoma this year. Will Wisconsin Weeping Willows(0632) grow well in Oklahome,If so is it too late for this year?

    • Judy permalink

      Hello John, thanks for the questions! The answer to both is a rousing “no, it is not too late to order & plant in Oklahoma.” :) Fall is an ideal time to plant in your area. If you are going to plant Hyrangeas, I recommend you plant them where they won’t get constant full sun in the summer. (Some late-afternoon shade should keep them very happy!) The Wisconsin Weeping Willow will do very well for you, just as long as it gets plenty of water. Weeping Willow trees grow at their very best along the banks of a pond or river. I hope you enjoy the beauty of the hydrangea & the Weeping Willow for many years to come!

  2. Bob Dodson permalink

    I have one of your fig trees in a container. I usually wait for the moderately cold weather (down to just below freezing at night) to take the leaves off it and then move it into a garage where it is never below freezing. I water lightly through the winter. When is the right time to bring this container back out again, and is there any other special treatment I should be giving it? Thank’s.

    • Sheila Beers permalink

      I should think it would be safe to bring out the container in the spring when daytime temperatures are above freezing and gradually get the plant accustomed to sunlight. I also should think it would be wise to put the container back in the garage at night until the night-time temperatures are above freezing. I also would keep the container watered well.

    • Judy permalink

      Hello Bob,

      After your fig tree has wintered in your garage, you will want to take it back to its permanent summer home when the daytime temperatures stay above 45º F. Do you normally prune the fig tree annually? I recommend you prune the fig tree in late winter or very early spring before new growth begins. Best wishes!

  3. i live in kentucky and my peach tree bore fruit this yr.. i need to know what month now i should trim it. i have purchased a pump so when do i spray the vegatable oil on it… do i trim my apple trees the same time i do the peach???

    thanks
    R.H.GRANT

    • Sheila Beers permalink

      I should think you would prune fruit trees in the fall when they are finished bearing fruit.

    • Judy permalink

      Hello Mr. Grant, I’m very happy to hear that you received your first crop of peaches this year!

      Regarding pruning your fruit trees, I recommend you wait until late February to prune your trees. And yes, you will want to prune your apple tree at the same time you prune the peach tree. If you are going to spray your fruit trees with a dormant oil, it would be wise to do that right now and they will be protected throughout the winter. :)

  4. My son purchased a lemon tree from Starks this year and we were wondering what we should be doing with it? We’ve brought it inside in placed it in a sunny window. Is that the right thing to do?

    • Sheila Beers permalink

      You were wise to bring the lemon tree in and to place it in a sunny window. Please keep the plant watered sufficiently, but do not over-water it.

      • Barbara permalink

        I am new to gardening. I purchased a lemon tree also and brought it indoors before the temps dipped below 60 at night. It has one lemon which is a fair size but still green, and has bloomed with 6 or 7 new little lemons. In the past two weeks the leaves are falling like crazy. What am I doing wrong? It’s in a sunny window and I am watering. Should I pick the one larger lemon? Will it get yellow?

        • Hi Barbara,

          Citrus trees, especially ones grown in containers and moved between the inside and the outside environments, can be finicky and are prone to dropping their leaves at the first signs of stress. The leaf drop is more than likely due to the change in environment (going from living outdoors to living indoors) — the good news is, the tree will bounce back from this once it adjusts and it will put on new leaves.

          Watering can be an issue. It’s easy to over-water citrus trees in containers, especially if the material of the container isn’t porous, like plastics. You should only water the tree when the soil is dry to the touch an inch or two below the surface. Also, be sure there are adequate drainage holes in the bottom of the pot to avoid standing water and root rots.

          One thing you might consider is mimicking the humidity of the outdoor environment for your lemon tree while it’s inside. You can do this by spraying water on the tree and soil surface using the mist setting of a spray bottle. You don’t have to soak the tree or soil, just spray enough to mist the tree’s environment. This helps because, typically, the air indoors is much drier than it is outdoors.

          The tree should put on more vegetative growth (leaves) soon, so you can leave the lemons to grow on the tree. The larger one will eventually turn yellow. Some lemons can take several months to ripen from green to yellow, but they will grow in size in the meantime. Fruit-set can stress the tree as well, so, if the tree’s condition appears to worsen, it would be best to remove the fruit to allow the tree to put its energy toward growing well rather than setting fruit.

    • Judy permalink

      Hi Leanne,

      Bringing your lemon tree indoors was exactly the correct thing to do. Placing it in a sunny window is where it needs to be. Citrus trees need 12 hours of light per day. You will want the temperature to range from a daytime high of 70º to a nighttime low of 55º. Citrus trees will go dormant at 50º F. It sounds like you are doing all of the proper things to help the lemon tree flourish!

  5. Donald permalink

    Leanne: I live in wisconsin and I have Orange , lemon, and Tangerine trees. I bring them in the house every winter and they are doing great. I have had some nice big Oranges this year and there are more on the tree. my Tangerines and Lemons are starting to fruit too.A bright sunny southern facing room or a corner room with south and east will be fine.I am taking cuttings every winter in March and I use an empty, clear 2 litre bottle with the bottom cut off and a round tupperware container filled with planting mix. The small branches that grow out from the underneath of other branches are what I take for cuttings. A dip in rooting hormone and place in the moist soil will give you new rooted plants by may, to share with your friends.I gave 7 away this past spring and one that I gave my cousin’s wife 4 years ago has Oranges on it already.Enjoy your tree ripened oranges they are delicious.

    • Donald permalink

      P.S. The 2 litre Soda bottle and Tupperware containers make great little windowsill “mini Greenhouses”.

  6. Ron Nash permalink

    I want to plant an apple and a peach trees next year. When should I order them. I live in NJ and it gets cold(Freeze). Do I nees 2 of each to polinate or 1 of each.
    Thanks Ron Nash

    • Meg permalink

      Ron, you can order any time between August & May. :) Since we’re closing up our fall shipping soon, your trees will be shipped next spring. (We only ship in the fall & spring.) It’s best to plant them as soon as they arrive!

      Re: pollinators, the apple will need a pollinator, but our peaches are all self-bearing. Did you have a particular apple in mind? Maybe I could suggest some pollinators for you. :) Let us know if you need anything else or if you have any other questions!

  7. Leon permalink

    I live in oklahoma city and have just planted my peach and apple trees do i need to put dormant oil on them ?

  8. Leon permalink

    when i recived my trees from you there was a green plastic tape around some of the trees near the bace or above the bace about 8″ what are they for and do i take them of the trees . thanks Leon

    • Meg permalink

      Hi Leon! The green tape was used to train the trees in our orchards & can be removed. :)

  9. Caleb Crowell permalink

    As weather starts to warm up here in Zone 6b, how will i know if the trees are alive? If i see no bud swell by March am i in trouble? There is not much happening with the bare roots i have planted.

    • Meg permalink

      Hi Caleb! How’s the weather in zone 6 this mid-February? We’re getting an unseasonably warm week in between ice & snow storms… definitely keeps us, & the trees, on our toes!

      Bud swell is always a good sign :) but if you’re itching to know beforehand, try taking a soft butter knife & scraping through the bark of your tree, about 18″ up from the ground. If you see green underneath – that’s a sure sign your tree is alive & just needs a little warm-weather coaxing to wake up.

  10. Tina Wells permalink

    I have a peach tree I ordered and planted last fall. It lost all of it’s leaves about a month ago (none of my other Stark trees did this so early) so I don’t know if just this one tree went into an early dormancy or if it is dead. Odd thing is, there are sprigs growing out of the base near the root stock and I don’t know what to do. My gut says trim them but then I wonder if the bulk of the tree is dead, what does it hurt to keep what is green and leafed out?

    • Because of the harsh summer in most areas, many trees have dropped their leaves early, Tina. This doesn’t mean the tree has died. It isn’t something to worry about, though, because it was about to lose its leaves for the fall anyway. Any nutrients it had stored throughout the growing season are there to carry it through the winter while it’s dormant.

      Growth from below the graft (called “suckers”) comes from the rootstock, which is still a peach tree, but it’s not going to have the characteristics of the variety you selected originally. Even though the sucker growth might have green leaves and the rest of the tree lost its leaves, it is more than likely the case that the grafted portion of your tree isn’t dead. The suckers from the rootstock are going to behave differently from the grafted variety, and I would recommend pruning that sucker growth off. That way, your tree will put its energy into supporting the variety peach tree rather than nutrient-stealing sucker growth in the spring. :)

  11. Diane permalink

    I live in Mass, zone 6a. I have a brown turkey fig tree in my greenhouse. It’s in its third year and appears to be doing well. The problem is I have it in a large trash barrel with holes in the bottom. The main root has grown out of one of the holes and rooted itself in the ground inside the greenhouse. How can I replant this? What container should I use now?

    • I think I might be faced with a similar issue this fall when I assess my fruit trees! I placed my potted trees in holes I dug in the ground in my yard so that they’d stop toppling over on windy days.

      If the tree has grown roots out through the bottom of the pot, you have a few options:

      1. Transplant your fig tree into a larger container once it’s dormant in the winter. It’s obviously a vigorous and healthy tree, so, if you can find a larger container and you have room for it, then this might be the way to go.

      2. Prune the roots and reuse the same container. This should also happen in the winter when your fig tree is leafless and dormant. Container-grown trees have a tendency to become root-bound, sending their roots circling around the walls of the container, so root-pruning every 1-3 years is recommended, depending on the precociousness of your tree’s root growth.

      To do this, you will need to remove the tree from its current container. Most people just lay the tree on its side and slide the container off for root maintenance. Just aim to clean up any tangled messes and allow the roots to spread. You might choose to refresh the potting medium/soil at this point as well. Rinse it from the roots with a hose and add fresh mix to the (same) container before repotting your newly root-pruned tree. Salts and other residual buildup can become problematic in container-grown trees, especially if you use fertilizers regularly.

      Root-pruning will also take care of any roots that may have tried to grow out through the holes in the bottom of the current container, so it’s an all-around good idea when caring for potted trees!

  12. Linda Clark permalink

    I purchased some apple, peach and plum trees this year and planted them in pots. It is starting to get cold here at night with a few nights already in the teens and 20s but others in 30s and 40s. Should I bring the trees in now, wait a bit longer or…? Also, do I water them through the winter? At what point in the Spring should I put them back outside?

    • Have your trees lost all their leaves yet? This is typically their signal to us that they are going dormant. You will want to wait until they have gone dormant before you decide to move them into an unheated location like a garage or shed or basement.

      You shouldn’t have to water them very much throughout the winter because they’re not taking in as much water as they would during the growing season. They will need to be watered if the soil appears dry and is not moist if you stick your finger below the top couple inches of soil. This watering method will protect the roots from winter injury.

      When temperatures start to warm up again in the spring, or when you start to see life in other outdoor plants, it will be your signal to move your container trees outside again so they can wake up with nature! :)

  13. Josie permalink

    I have a potted cherry tree in Indianapolis, where we have already seen multiple nights of very cold weather. By bringing it into the garage with no light, is this OK for the tree? Also, will this shock it by going from bright light to no light?

    • Unless the cherry tree is out of its recommended growing zone, the cold weather shouldn’t be harmful, especially if you mulch over the soil in the container and keep the soil from becoming too dry. Like the article states: “It’s easier for freeze damage to occur in a dry container than in a wet container!”

      If you want to protect the tree from the winter elements, the garage is the place to do it. It’s not going to suffer shock due to changes in light, since less light is ideal for the tree to be going and staying “asleep” (dormant) in an unheated garage.

      Warm temperatures and light are going to be triggers to help wake it up again in the spring!

  14. Rich permalink

    My trees that were planted last fall and this spring have mostly lost their leaves but did so from the center of the tree out making the furthest leaves from the center stay on even though we’ve been below freezing for long periods of time. I find it odd the inner leaves shrivel and die while the outer leaves, despite being December, look almost as healthy as summer… I imagine they can only hold on for so long. It’s on my Apple trees and my Plum tree… Is this normal?

    • It’s not unusual for the leaves to hang on like that. It’s more than likely that the outer leaves came on later than the ones that have already fallen. I have the same thing going on with my apple trees and they’ve been getting regular temperatures below freezing, even into the low teens. I’m just waiting for things to go so I can prune already! My plum tree finally let go of its leaves recently (which still seemed late).

      As long as you’re not fertilizing or anything that will encourage more growth, the leaves will drop eventually. They’ll at least shrivel so that they can be easily knocked off, anyway.

      • Rich permalink

        I thought one couldn’t prune until February…is it when leaves have fallen? I plan to aggressively prune my trees to the point that the parts with leaves on them will no longer be part of the tree when I’m done pruning… Can I prune now?

        • As long as the trees are dormant, you can prune without much worry. A good sign of dormancy is when all the leaves have fallen, which is usually in the winter/early spring for most areas.

          Routine maintenance can be done earlier, but heavy pruning might be better done later (more toward early spring) to minimize risk of encouraging a vegetative growth response when winter is still a threat.

          Generally speaking, I think it’s an old adage that the best time to prune is when you least want to go outside (implying dead of winter).

  15. Rob permalink

    Elmer,

    I have two of Starks Crimson Cherry Trees in 20 gal. pots. What sort of preparation do I need to do for winter? I do not have a garage or someplace usable to move them to. THANKS!

    • Hey Rob!

      In the article, Elmer mentions some tips how to protect the roots in the container even if you can’t move the trees indoors. “If a plant is cold-hardy, you can leave it outside by mounding 4-6 inches of mulch around and over the top of the pot — heavy enough to provide a protective barrier around the pot. Prior to mounding, you should adequately water the pot. For added protection, consider using some type of rodent bait in the sawdust or mulch to avoid mice depredation.”

      I have trees that are in containers that I leave outside, too, because they’re hardy enough to have been planted in the ground (I just didn’t have the space). I actually dug holes in the ground and “planted” the pots so that they have that extra bit of insulation between the pot and the surrounding soil, and then I mulched on top of it. Maybe this method will work for you, too! :)

  16. Marion permalink

    I planted 2 apple trees and 2 pear trees (all bare root) early November this year. I have covered the soil around them with mulch. I have yet to cover them with tree guards as what I have read earlier to protect the from critters etc. I do want to know if we still need to water them this fall or specially winter season? In Illinois right now, temperature is in the low twenties, though no snow yet. And aside from the tree guard what else do I need that is imperative to keep my trees healthy and alive

    • For the most part, unless your winter is a drought-like winter with no precipitation, you won’t need to continue to water your newly planted trees. The watering they get at planting time should be adequate, and then rain or snow that falls during the winter will provide any moisture that the roots might need to survive.

      The tree guard will help protect the trunks of your trees and the mulch will help protect the roots. You and your trees should be set!

  17. Michael permalink

    I planted five apple trees and five peach trees late this spring. Deer ate the branches and stripped the bark off the trunk down to five inches from the ground on two of the peach trees and two of the apple trees. Can I prune the trees just above the missing bark and successfully get new growth?

    • Hi Michael! The deer went all out on your trees, didn’t they? As long as the trunk that is left after pruning is above the graft, the trees will be able to grow while still remaining true to their variety. You will even be able to train the new growth to become your trees’ new trunks. However, anything that grows from below the graft will be from the rootstock and it won’t be the varieties you intended to plant.

      If it’s possible, you might want to consider replacing the trees that were damaged with new trees. The deer-damaged trees may struggle for some time as they recover, and it would be unfortunate because “growing your own” should be an enjoyable experience!

  18. Scarlett Bissette permalink

    I have two kiwi plants (a male and a female) and the female has lots of blossoms every spring, but the male only has 4 or 5 blossoms. I have not had any kiwis yet and the plants are 5 or more years old. I have checked with the local agricultural department and they don’t know the answer. I was wondering if you would know why the male doesn’t bloom as it should.

    • It really depends on the variety you’re growing, the location the vine is planted, and the pruning it receives. Light is a major factor in blooming and fruit production, so if your male vine is in a shaded location, or if it is not receiving regular pruning to keep it open to light, you may have found the cause for minimal flower production in your male — even if both vines are receiving the exact same care and the female is performing well.

      Here is a video about pruning hardy kiwi from Edible Landscaping that you might find useful: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lyQa5fy1IfE

      The only other thing I can think of is that the male vine just isn’t mature enough yet. This can only be remedied by allowing it more time. Some kiwi growers note that their male vines don’t start flowering until their 7th year — after which they take off and bloom like crazy!

  19. Nick Rust permalink

    I planted two of your peach trees (different varieties) two years ago, last spring I purchased two apple trees from you and the white tree wraps for the peaches. Later, about mid summer, I saw a sawdust on one tree. I took off the wraps and have several holes and whitish “grubs” in each tree , presumably from “Peach tree borers” . The plastic wraps seem to have made a perfect hiding place for these pests to go undetected much of the summer.
    How do I (or can I ) save these two trees?

    • There are a few ways to control peach tree borers:

      1. Manually remove borer grubs if they’re already present. You can do this by inserting thin wire into the borer holes in the trunk and digging them out.

      2. Use a pesticide like Borer-Miner Killer if borers are prominent. Be sure to thoroughly coat the trunk and base of the tree. Apply three times throughout spring and early summer (avoid spraying all pesticides during bloom time when bees are present). We recommend the last two applications about July 1st and July 15th.

      Missouri Botanical Garden also recommends: “Spray or paint only the trunk and lower limbs with either carbaryl (Sevin) or endosulfan (Thiodan) in the first half of May and again in the first half of August as a preventative.”

      3. Routinely examine your trees. Peach trees thrive from mid-summer and dormant-season pruning, and these are ideal times to give your trees an all-around check up. This will help you keep on top of their health status and help you be successful with the other two suggestions!

  20. Marion permalink

    Thanks so much! Appreciate the response.

  21. Natalie permalink

    Over the last few years we have planted a total of 9 different types of fruit trees. We had never had any issues with rabbits until this year. I just went out to prune the trees and all but one had been gnawed on, some much worse than others but all had been gnawed all the way around the tree up to 2-3 foot off the ground(I suppose because we had such deep snow this year they were able to reach that high). I am assuming that we will not be able to save them by if there is anything we can try I would be willing to do so. Any suggestions?

    • Rabbits are some of the most serious pests to young plants and trees. One rabbit can damage dozens of trees over the course of a single night. It breaks my heart to hear these critters got to your trees. :(

      If they have completely gnawed the bark around the circumference of the tree trunks, the trees have been “girdled”. Girdling a tree completely disrupts its vascular system and girdled trees will not be able to transfer nutrients from the roots to above the point where the trees have been girdled.

      Now, you said the trees were gnawed all the way around the tree up to 2-3 feet above the ground. I’m not sure how far along these trees are, but if you are able to prune them back below the damage that is 2-3 feet above the ground, then they will be able to force new growth. This is more effective in younger trees whose trunks haven’t gotten very large yet (4-inches or more in diameter). The older the trees are, the more “blind wood” they will have (areas on the tree that don’t currently have buds). Assuming they haven’t also been girdled below the 2-3 foot mark, this will be a way to save the trees you already have growing, but they will certainly be delayed as a result of the rabbit damage.

      If the rabbit damage is there but has not girdled other areas of your trees, you can clean the wound and patch it with a tree wound dressing like the Treekote product from Walter E. Clark.

      I sincerely wish you and your trees the best Natalie!

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